Format Bias – Unintended Consequences

One of the requirements for television media is that they are required to be impartial during election campaigns.

As such they draw up guidelines for their editorial and attempt to represent both sides of the argument, at least in theory.  While that may or may not have happened in the Scottish Independence Referendum, it does provide another example – how existing formats for segments create their own bias and almost certainly this is completely unintentional and only because they editor hasn’t thought about how the format works.

The best example for this is the What the Papers Say sections on BBC News 24 and Sky News every week-night shortly before midnight (and in the case of Sky repeated throughout the night).  The never changing format of this segment sees two or three journalists, from the London media establishment, commenting on the stories in the next days press.

Just thinking about this, it is perhaps possible to see why the editors never considered how this might create bias in their coverage of the referendum, how it would never actually be scrutinised when the network’s legal requirements were being addressed, policy formulated and safeguards put in place.  It is a relatively benign segment in itself and not the first choice for failures leading to bias in reporting.

The problem is two fold.  In the Referendum campaign, a total of zero daily newspapers declared their support for Yes Scotland.  The entire daily press either declared for No Thanks or made no declaration (and while many reading these titles would identify clear bias against independence, it doesn’t matter for this point to be made, even if neutral we get the same outcome).  As such a format consisting of, in effect, reading out the headlines, a few lines from an article and a few glib comments from the panellists can only present a biased picture of the news and directly cause the entire segment to be biased against Yes Scotland.

The second, compounding factor, is the consistent use of London based journalists as panellists.  In many cases, it became clear that the knowledge of Scotland and the Referendum was shaky at best and as these are the same people who are working for and reporting for papers which are either declared supporters of No Thanks or (nominally) neutral they themselves can only add to this bias as their viewpoint should, in general, reflect the editorial of their paper.

Especially in the last two weeks of the campaign, the What the Papers Say segments on both channels always ran at least one Referendum story and as this coincided with the escalation of Project Fear, it was always an article which was biased against Yes Scotland.  In effect, both networks had created a “2 minute hate” against the Yes campaign which was actually stretched out to cover at least 5 minutes of a 15 minute formate.

Every. Single. Day.

My belief is that this was a genuine error on the part of news editors at both channels.  This may be giving them too generous a benefit of the doubt.  I can also understand that in a regular election, there should be a broader church of support amongst different press organisations to the parties competing for votes, the Guardian can balance the Telegraph to get different views on an election story.

But when the Guardian and the Telegraph are effectively rebroadcasting the same high profile scares press-released by Better Together and no paper is providing a positive spin on Yes Scotland, the difference that a Referendum campaign makes becomes very clear.

What is also undoubtedly needed for the future is that existing formats, however benign they might seem, need as much consideration as new reporting and new formats created for coverage of any election or referendum campaign.

The Storytelling Narrative

Narrative means storytelling, its the plot which draws you in to any fiction, engages your interest and has you hanging on for what happens next.  Most of the time this is great.  But these days, Narrative isn’t limited to fiction, it is the primary driver of the rolling news and the drive towards Narrative is destroying the BBC’s former commitment to impartiality.

News should be about facts.  But facts are not compelling.  When you state a fact or in even complex cases a situation where there are various potential and disputed factual causes, once that fact or those potential causes are stated, that’s it, move along, nothing more to see here.  Even a relatively complicated argument when reported can be drilled down to a series of bullet points.  It doesn’t keep the viewer and so rolling news has developed the need for Narrative in their reporting.

The problem with this is that the Narrative then drives the news.  Whatever choice is made for the story immediately biases all reporting subsequent to this editorial decision.

If facts emerge which ignore the Narrative, ignore them.  If a contributor provides an opinion which doesn’t support the Narrative, ignore them, condescend them or simply talk over them with the correct narrative till you cut them off.  Because the editorial team which created the Narrative has complete control on the output.  Facts are chosen based on the Narrative, guests can be screened based on their likelihood to support the Narrative and, indeed, the more self-promoting guest will understand this and deliberately play to the Narrative even when they know its factually wrong.

The BBC is different to a commercial news channel.  It is subject to the editorial guidelines set by the BBC Trust.  It should be accountable to the decisions it makes.  However, something has gone markedly wrong.  The BBC no longer fulfils the requirement for impartiality that should be at the core of everything it does – ESPECIALLY in news reporting.

Until the BBC Trust addresses this problem and this desire to create a Narrative in the never ending pursuit of ratings, BBC News will not be fit for purpose.